September/October 2007 issue

Road to Nowhere: Faulty Web Links in Opinions (Update)

by Kris Albertus, Reference/CALR Librarian
Back in 2004 I wrote an article about the problem of faulty web links in judicial opinions. In light of the ever increasing number of web pages being cited in opinions, along with recent efforts by some circuit libraries to capture these links before they go bad, it seems like a good time for an update on the issue.

Recap: The amount of information that is moving to the Internet is staggering. This is particularly true with respect to information produced by government agencies.

Unfortunately, the Internet still cannot be considered a stable source of information. The web page you find today, whether it is part of a commercial site or a government site, may be a dead end only a month from now, or the content that was once there may have been changed. Those in the library science and IT professions often refer to this as “link rot.”

The older the case, the more likely this is to occur. As the practice of citing to Internet materials becomes more common, it is important to consider how courts will deal with these often ephemeral resources.

As of October 12, 2007, a total of 366 opinions from appellate and district courts in the 8th Circuit cite to web pages. That’s up from 153 back in 2004. Looking at just the 8th Circuit appellate opinions, there are 70 opinions that contain a total of 100 web citations. Of those 100 citations, 38 are no longer good.

Other circuits are beginning to think about solutions to this problem. Circuit libraries have been particularly proactive on the issue, given how sensitive librarians in general are to the issue of “link rot.” This year the 7th Circuit Library began scanning the daily opinion releases and started a database of pdf captures for web citations that appear in 7th Circuit appellate opinions. The 8th Circuit Library is considering a similar approach.

The larger question to be considered is whether this problem would be better addressed in the earlier stages of a case? Should attorneys citing to web pages in their briefs be required to submit print copies of screen captures? Should chambers immediately print off a copy of a web page they plan to cite in an opinion? Sometimes web pages go bad within weeks. In cases like that, a cited web page could be altered or gone by the time the opinion is released - too late for the libraries to catch it.